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A Master at Work

Margie Pensak

Gianni Toso, one of the world’s leading glass artists, is as passionate about his art as he is about his late-gained family, the Jewish People

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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DEEPER TRUTH “Because I was working in the Jewish Ghetto, and because I had developed a close relationship with the chief rabbi of Venice, Rabbi Sebag mistook me for a Jew. When I told him that I was not born Jewish, he responded, ‘I know your neshamah, Gianni’” (Photos: Esky Cook)

G ianni Toso is one of the world’s leading glass artists. He’s also an Italian-born descendant of a family that’s been making glass for the last 700 years. In his Baltimore studio, we discovered that Toso is as passionate about his art as he is about his late-gained family, the Jewish People

To the average passerby, the trellised grapevines of Maestro Gianni Toso’s corner property on Bancroft Road in Baltimore may appear a curiosity.

Indeed, few know that the trellises lead to the studio of one of the world’s greatest glassblowers. It is there that Toso practices a craft that has been in his family for the past 700 years.

Gianni, 75, warmly welcomes us into his studio, dressed for the part — khaki pants, emerald-green plaid shirt, and navy sweater vest. Toso wears a full salt-and-pepper beard and a navy beret rests atop his head.

Toso’s work is found in galleries and private collections in the United States, Europe, and Israel, and is on permanent display at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York and at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. Many a shul is graced by a ner tamid blown by Gianni, too.

“Toso is considered one of the world’s great artists working in lampworked glass,” according to Cindy Mackey of the Chrysler Museum of Art.

Despite his talent and reputation, Toso is humble about his gifts. “My mother was the first one to tell me that G-d gave me a great gift, and that I needed to refine it. G-d has always been my greatest teacher. Many times, I sit down at the torch and don’t even know what I will make. I literally feel Him guiding my hand.”

Everything Is Calculated

Gianni built his studio — formerly a broken-down greenhouse — and just about everything in it, with his own hands, including his wooden workbench, the chandeliers, and a wood-burning stove (for which he chops the wood) to keep him warm when his furnaces aren’t running.

Tourists and collectors from all over the world passed through his doors, and he mingled with celebrities while creating commissions for contessas and Mafia bosses alike

“I make everything over here,” he says. “The only thing I don’t make is money.”

Toso is being modest. Individual Toso works begin at about $300. Larger, complicated pieces sell to private collectors for as much as $30,000. One complex 114-piece work that took him over a year to complete sold for $120,000.

Toso is best known for creating highly detailed tableaus that depict scenes from everyday Jewish life: a chassan and kallah standing under the chuppah; Jews of every stripe holding the arba minim in a joyous Hoshanos procession; a multigenerational family sitting down for a lavish Pesach Seder with Kri’as Yam Suf in the background.

Toso’s a perfectionist. Pointing to shelves on the wall that bear a huge assortment of blown glass figures, Gianni explains that these are his “mistakes.” Rather than discard them, he considers the prototypes part of his learning curve.

“When a collector purchases a piece, he doesn’t realize that what he has in his hands represents only about 70 percent of the process of creation,” explains Gianni. “I select only the best pieces to be a part of the finished work. What you see are the 30 percent of the pieces I rejected.”

Picking up a Kiddush cup tray with a recessed lip that he created to prevent spillage, he remarks, “Everything you put in the glass is a part of your brain. Nothing is an accident. Everything is calculated.”

Glass Houses

The color, glow, and fluidity of hot glass have fascinated Gianni since he was a child. He grew up in Murano, Italy, a small island in the Adriatic Sea near Venice that has been famous since the Middle Ages for its glass art.

Unfulfilled by his school studies and driven by his fascination with fire, one day the young Gianni entered the open doors of a glass factory. Mesmerized by the glowing furnaces and the glassblowers with their blowpipes moving like dancers in a ballet, Gianni begged the factory owner for a job. That’s how, at the age of ten and unbeknownst to his parents, he embarked on what would become his destiny. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 655)

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